The Detection Triage - A Systematic Approach to Identification

When responding to hazmat (hazardous materials) and/or CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive) incidents, emergency responders have many detection devices at their disposal. These devices vary from the simple to the complex – some require a considerable amount of training, both initially and for ongoing proficiency, and others provide readings that can lead the responder down the wrong tactical and/or operational decision path.

With all the detection devices now on the market, responders should be aware of the processes that can help direct them toward the most effective devices and methodologies that should be used when making decisions about not only their personal safety but also the safety of the community as a whole. By adopting a systematic approach of first “triaging” the incident scene, then using several time-tested detection methods, responders will have a better idea of what equipment to use and how to manage the incident in general, regardless of its size and scope.

The Basic Steps of Detection Triage

Even while they are still just approaching the incident scene, emergency response personnel should at the same time be assessing the initial information available from the scene to find clues that may indicate the specific hazards involved – the location of the incident, for example, the number and types of containers involved, and the credibility of any threats that might have been made as well as the signs and symptoms observed by responders and/or mentioned by possible victims.

Upon arrival at the scene, the next step in this triage method is to determine the possible materials involved and the state of matter that is being released. The determination of whether the product released is a solid, liquid, gas – or a combination of any or all of these substances – will usually lead emergency responders to the correct third step in the detection triage by indicating which devices, systems, or other “tools” at their disposal will work most effectively.

Responders will first have to address the primary hazards at the incident scene, though – and to ask a few common-sense questions about whether the release is flammable, toxic, or corrosive, for example, or whether it has an energy component. For the detection of these particular hazards, responders should have immediately available such equipment as: (a) multi-gas meters and photo ionization detectors (to determine flammability potential and oxygen levels); (b) toxic sensors (to determine the presence of carbon monoxide and/or hydrogen sulphide); (c) radiation detection devices such as pagers and meters (both of which are available in most jurisdictions) to determine basic energy emitters; and (d) pH paper (to determine the “corrosivity” – i.e., tendency to rust or erode – of certain products). After these primary hazards have been investigated, responders can then use the scientific arsenals of sophisticated detection equipment that the more advanced hazmat teams bring with them to identify products.

Following are a few examples of how and when to use the triage approach to obtain a more definitive identification.

Chemical Products: After a chemical hazard has been identified, responders can and should use any or all of the following: calorimetric Tubes; “Wet” Chemistry; FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Technology); Raman systems; and/or Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectroscopy (GC/MS). Two caveats should be noted: (a) This algorithm is heavily dependent on the capabilities and availability of the response teams and the authority possessing legal jurisdiction at the scene; and (b) There are many other instruments that can be used in conjunction with those mentioned here.

Biological Equipment: After it has been determined that there is or might be a biological threat present, responders can and should use any or all of the following: Protein Test Kits; Hand-Held Assays (for Immuno-Assay Detection); Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) equipment; the FTIR and/or GC/MS systems mentioned above; and/or lab cultures and analyses.

Note: Before “processing” an incident involving a biological threat, responders should not only consult with the law-enforcement officials present but also adhere to the following ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) Standards:

  • The E2770-10 Standard Guide for Operational Guidelines for Initial Response to a Suspected Bio-threat Agent; and
  • The E2458-10 Standard Practices for the Bulk Sample Collection and the Swab Sample Collection of Visible Powders Suspected of Being Bio-threat Agents from Nonporous Surfaces.

Radiological: After the identification of a possible radiological hazard has been determined, responders can and should use, as appropriate, any or all of the following: Personal Radiological Dosimetry (PRD – to help determine personal dose/exposure); Radiological Isotope Identifier Devices (RIIDs); and/or Laboratory Analyses. In addition, and before processing an incident involving a radiological threat, responders should consult with appropriate law-enforcement officials and adhere to the ASTM’s E2601-08 Standard Practice for Radiological Emergency Response.

To briefly summarize, the triaging process is often used not only to determine the priority in which victims should be treated (usually based on the severity of injuries suffered), but also to determine the priority of the equipment that should be used – a decision that in most cases will be based on its effectiveness in particular situations. Using a triage approach to identify CBRNE products is, in short, an efficient way to provide a more accurate identification of any hazardous materials that might be present at an incident scene. It also usually leads to better tactical decisions and provides more definitive protection for the responders themselves as well as better care for the victims who may have been exposed.

Glen Rudner
Glen Rudner

Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.



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